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Is the biodiesel industry on the ropes?

Renewable diesel came out swinging, winning the West Coast, but it’s still the underdog in soybean country.

Mindy Ward, Editor, Missouri Ruralist

May 4, 2023

3 Min Read
boxing gloves in front of dark soybean background
BATTLE ROYALE: Farmers are caught in the middle of a supply struggle in the biofuels industry. It’s resulting in a strong market for soybeans and their price. Burazin/empire331/Getty Images

The fight for your soybeans is taking place at the fuel pump.

Biodiesel has long been the heavy hitter in the biofuels space, using soybeans to generate 2.5 billion gallons per year. But the latest contender — renewable diesel — entered the ring and flexed its muscle, using that same crop to produce 2.6 billion gallons — with a "b."

Last year, for the first time, renewable diesel surpassed biodiesel in total capacity, but that does not mean the farmer-supported soybean-based blend is going away. Quite the opposite.

“There’s a strong market for biodiesel in the Midwest and the West Coast,” says Matt Amick, director of market development for Missouri Soybeans and executive director for the Biodiesel Coalition of Missouri. “It remains the biofuel of choice here.”

In the heartland, there are no low-carbon fuel requirements such as those in California, Oregon or Washington. Those standards incentivize the use of low-carbon fuels, making renewable diesel more competitive in that marketplace.

In California, drivers may see R80B20 fuel, or 80% renewable diesel and 20% biodiesel. Soybeans are a source for both: 50% of biodiesel is soy-based; 15% of renewable diesel uses soy oil.

But can this industry find enough oil supply to meet demand for both?

Feedstock supply issues

Renewable diesel capacity could more than double by 2025, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data. It estimates capacity rising to 5.9 billion gallons per year.

CoBank, a national cooperative bank for farmers and ranchers, looked at the renewable diesel industry growth as well, and says that number could be higher — 6.5 billion gallons.

“The net change in growth means there’s 3.4 billion more soybeans needed to be crushed,” says Kenneth Scott Zuckerberg, lead analyst and senior economist at CoBank. “That would require 65.5 million new soybean acres, or 77% of the current year’s harvest.”

Zuckerberg, who is an analyst for grain, farm supply and biofuels, looked at options to fill the soybean bushel gap such as:

  • switching acres to other crops

  • stopping exports

  • increasing yields

  • using alternative feedstocks

“The most likely scenario,” he says, “is a combination of all the above and some alternative crops that offer oil.”

But any increase in soybean acres will take more than the current 60 crushing facilities to process.

Crushing blow

The U.S. has a total crush capacity of 2.2 billion bushels per year. Early this year, there were 23 plant expansion announcements, adding 750 million bushels — closer to demand projections.

But that is if they reach fruition.

Chatter around these soybean crush facilities quickly turns to the renewable diesel market and the Renewable Fuels Standard.

If renewable volume obligations, or RVOs, are scaled back under the RFS, it may deter some of the proposed plants from building or expanding. Amick says that will limit crush capacity. Worse, fewer facilities coming online will negatively affect some current biodiesel plants.

Stand-alone biodiesel plants, not aligned with their own soybean crush plant, will struggle even more to find soybeans. “Some in the industry are anticipating a drop in biodiesel production capacity because these plants cannot compete with renewable diesel for feedstock,” Amick says.

It’s a difficult situation for these plants, as they become yet another contender in the ring fighting for soybeans — a bout, Amick says, that may last for the next few years.

“Twenty years ago, we had soybean oil and were trying to figure out what to do with it,” Amick adds. “Now, we have strong demand, and not enough to fill it. It is a great opportunity from a farmer perspective.”

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About the Author(s)

Mindy Ward

Editor, Missouri Ruralist

Mindy resides on a small farm just outside of Holstein, Mo, about 80 miles southwest of St. Louis.

After graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural journalism, she worked briefly at a public relations firm in Kansas City. Her husband’s career led the couple north to Minnesota.

There, she reported on large-scale production of corn, soybeans, sugar beets, and dairy, as well as, biofuels for The Land. After 10 years, the couple returned to Missouri and she began covering agriculture in the Show-Me State.

“In all my 15 years of writing about agriculture, I have found some of the most progressive thinkers are farmers,” she says. “They are constantly searching for ways to do more with less, improve their land and leave their legacy to the next generation.”

Mindy and her husband, Stacy, together with their daughters, Elisa and Cassidy, operate Showtime Farms in southern Warren County. The family spends a great deal of time caring for and showing Dorset, Oxford and crossbred sheep.

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